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Surface Survey 1989.121 (Chamunda, the Horrific Destroyer of Evil)Clement Valla, Photography by Baker & Evans

How to deal with writer's block with Sarah Manguso

The enigmatic prose practitioner inscribes her process in this meditation on being unable to write

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.

Staging a mid-week takeover is prolific genre-bender David Shields – the author of both non-fiction and fiction whose literary collaging constantly eludes classification. We've pinned him down for an exclusive manifesto, as well as curated content from those authors and poets who he believes are breaking all the right rules.

How do we write a single life? Or grief? Or illness? All of these real-life happenings have their corresponding methodologies in the literary world; for writer and memoirist Sarah Manguso, to work outside of these methodologies produces liberating poetry, non-fiction and short stories. Now, for her third book – forthcoming in 2015 – Manguso has used her unique approach to the essay to confront a bastion of the written word: the ostensibly humble daily diary. Having maintained a personal diary for 25 years, Ongoingness promises an account of trying to recapture and clarify time that will haunt the reader just as his or her own memories. But even spare, meditative work such as Manguso's comes out of a writer's struggle to inscribe thought; as Manguso reveals for Dazed, writer's block will always find a new home. 

David Shields: "It seemed scarcely possible that, after The Two Kinds of Decay and The Guardians, Sarah Manguso’s work could get more urgent, but somehow it has. Ongoingness confronts the deepest processes and myths of life and death: birth, marriage, illness, mourning, motherhood, art. Underwriting this book, as is true of all of Manguso’s books, is writing itself. Or, rather, the writing is about itself in the best, most vital sense. Our author/narrator/speaker/heroine is never not asking the most fundamental question, namely, 'Why live?' The seriousness of the inquiry gives this book extraordinary purpose, momentum, and value. I am in awe."


When I was younger I could write about anything. When I was twenty I announced my intention to write book reviews. I’d like to write about fiction and poetry, I informed a magazine editor, wearing my uninformed opinions like a mantle. We already have enough people to do that, the editor told me, but what about science? Not a problem! I cheerily replied. I was assigned to review a book about a new theory of evolutionary anthropology. I vetted it with several friends who had studied science. It took a hundred hours to write. I submitted it and it ran. 

A week later I reminded the editor I wanted to write about poetry. He asked me point-blank if I could read German. Why, of course! My German was limited to the few words I knew from singing Bach in a church choir—Dein Jesu ist tod, Ich habe genug, and so on, but in my mind that counted. I took two facing-page editions home that night, two German poets I’d never heard of. One of them was Georg Trakl, which should give you some idea of the narrowness of my frame of reference. I wrote another tidy little essay. It ran. I went on to write about many good and some great writers. I never felt a moment of shame.

I now have the opposite problem. I can’t review a thing. Everything feels too personal.

At a dinner party a woman describes the crushing fatigue and cognitive impairment of pregnancy as control by some external force. At once I envision a science-fiction novel as a nine-month journal written by someone of indeterminate sex, beginning with the fallout from some unnamed violent trauma, continuing through increasing panic and disembodiment, and ending in childbirth. An apparent man in prison careening toward madness turns out to be a woman in a house careening toward motherhood! After all their confident judgments of the character’s extreme worthiness—in light of the narrator’s fervent and tearful written soliloquies about justice and control and human dignity—readers would have to admit they assumed only a man could narrate such a thing. For a few minutes the idea seems politically important, then I tire of it. I’ve never wanted to make up stories.

“One can write an essay appreciating a contemporary but not a long dead, thrice-belaureled Frenchman. I might as well be a schoolchild writing a report on Shakespeare.” – Sarah Manguso

Today I think I’ll write an appreciation of the 1923 French novella I always say I love even though I haven’t read it lately. Then I look at the front matter of my out-of-print English edition and find a well-known journalist wrote about it when it was first published in English, and that it was reprinted in the 1970s France to much acclaim. One can write an essay appreciating a contemporary but not a long dead, thrice-belaureled Frenchman. I might as well be a schoolchild writing a report on Shakespeare.

Maybe I could write about the Anglican music I love, I think. But what will I say, that I like the way it sounds? I make many general statements and cross them out. The essay becomes a pebble. 

Earlier in my life, when faced with this problem, I simply interviewed various persons whose work interested me. It was somewhat legitimate work. Maybe I could interview that fellow who runs the memory research lab at the university in California. Then I find he’s already made the rounds of the popular press more than once and was interviewed on public radio several years ago. Every writer I want to talk with has already given so many interviews that there is nothing left to ask.

I read a collection of commentaries on a classical text, including one by a scholar who knows every translation intimately in both word and thought. She provides one brilliant page. A few young people provide thousands of words of competent prose about this and that, one of them using an epigraph from the text to secure its relevance. They remind me of myself. 

If I can’t add any light to the light, I moralize into my diary, I’ll do the second-best thing, which is to be silent.

My writer’s block resides deep in my skull, behind my teeth.